If you’ve been reading Playback for a while, you will know that we hold HiFiMAN planar magnetic headphones in pretty high regard. No manufacturer is perfect, but HiFiMAN has managed to impress in its short time on the scene (or maybe because of it, since they seem to be trying very hard to get it right). The HiFiMAN HE-5LE ($699) began the HiFiMAN wave, and is certainly one of the market’s performance/value leaders. And there are those on the staff who think the HE-6 ($1199) is one of the finest headphones they’ve yet heard at any price. Now we get a full look at their new HE-500 ($899).
HiFiMAN uses an unusual technology that audiophiles familiar with Magnepan speakers will know about. The vast majority of full-size, high-end headphones on the market use traditional piston-type dynamic drivers, but the HiFiMAN HE-500 is different in that it is a so-called “orthodynamic” headphone that uses planar magnetic drivers. In a planar magnetic driver, the diaphragm is a thin, light membrane whose entire surface is covered with a conductive coating arranged in a specific pattern. The conductive driver membrane is in turn suspended near a grid of magnets so that, when an audio signal is fed to the driver, the entire diaphragm surface is alternately pulled toward or pushed away from the magnet array. The electromagnetics are similar to those of a standard driver (a force will result from passing a current through a wire suspended in a magnetic field), but the mechanical arrangement is different.
In theory, the benefits of the planar magnetic driver are that the diaphragm can be very light and the driving forces can act over the entire working surface of the diaphragm, potentially offering more precise control with greater freedom from unintended resonance or vibration.
That’s nice, but to make the grid open enough to let sound pass through freely, this type of driver tends to be inefficient (you need a lot of power). This has been a HiFiMAN bugaboo, with the HE-6 revealing its magic only with the most potent amplifiers. Even the HE-5LE needs a healthy amp.
To quantify that observation, let me point out that the rated sensitivity of the HE-5LE is a low 87.5 dB/mW, while the sensitivity of the HE-6 is an even lower 83.5 dB/mW. To put that latter figure in perspective, consider the fact that—unlike any other headphones we’ve tested thus far—the HE-6’s come with a special adapter cable that allows users to power the headphones directly from the speaker taps of a conventional power amplifier or integrated amplifier.
HiFiMAN is well aware that the power requirements of these headphones is a limitation for some customers, and with this thought firmly in mind they set out to create a model that combined elements of the HE-5LE and HE-6 designs, yet that would be easier to drive than either of them. The rated sensitivity of the HE-500 is 89 dB/mW, a figure that is 1.5 dB higher than the HE-5LE’s rating and a whopping 5.5 dB higher than the HE-6’s. While it might not seem very significant, that step up in sensitivity makes a big difference in terms of real-world usability and amplifier flexibility, although the HE-500 still doesn’t qualify as a “high sensitivity” headphone.
Ironlcally, the big gain here may be the alterations in sonic signature occasioned by the search for more sensitivity. The sonic signature of the HE-500 is something special, and I think this model finally erases the hesitance of some of our reviewers to admit HiFiMAN to the top echelon of headphone manufacturers.
Consider this headphone if: you want a headphone that delivers pretty much the full wish list: ultra wide-range frequency response, accurate tonal balance, great bass, excellent resolution of low-level sonic details, and low distortion. Oh, and give the HE-500 an extra-careful look if you’re willing to use a headphone that needs a very good amplifier to show its stuff.
Look further if: you want euphonically exaggerated clarity or the absolute highest levels of treble resolution (that’s where the HE-6 comes in). Also, skip this model if you favor light or relatively easy-to-drive headphones.
Ratings (relative to comparably priced headphones):